Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why We Chose Farm Life

I am glad I was part of the 'Back to Earth' movement even if we didn't know it was a movement. The cities had become so angry by 1975. Watergate, the assassinations of men of peace, the winding down of equal rights, the drugs which made their appearance were dangers that could not be escaped so we simply fled them. Many of us returned to our roots; to the places where our grandparents raised a family amid the simple pleasures of our own youth.

The gift of a small town where the doors are never locked at night, where the car keys need not be removed, where you can call the pharmacist at home to meet you if the children became ill during the night... all this was too important for my family to miss and I'm glad we didn't.
I am so pleased I was able to experience farm life before the disasters of the 1980's and closure of the family farm as a treasured institution. Family farming was over by the time John Cougar Mellencamp wrote the poignant song "The Auctioneer" and Willie Nelson began his battle to save them. Family farms were still on every section of land in 1975 so we became part of a close knit community of neighbors.

I was able to go to quilting bees with little old ladies who had quilted together since they were girls. My stitches are in their quilts and even though the ladies are all gone now, the quilts have been lovingly passed on and I have several to serve my memory. These ladies took me under their wing and I learned short cuts to canning, how to milk a cow, plant a garden and the joy of fresh eggs.

You could drive along a dirt road in June and country ladies would have spontaneously met to pick sand plums at a most favored 'secret' place. We would later attend family our community berry picking party followed by homemade pies, guitar music, tall tales and ageless laughter. I was able to push back time a little and give my children an antique life style that has all but disappeared... I am happy we didn't miss it especially since it has disappeared now.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Amazing Bodark

Each year Autumn presents Osage oranges that have fully ripened to their signature color and thus their common name. It is a member of the Mulberry family and depending upon locale it may be referred to as hedge apple, horse apple, monkey ball, bodark or bois d'arc. In spite of its terrible reputation as invasive it was extremely important in the rise of Native American culture in the United States.

It was first mentioned to an English speaking audience in a letter from Scottish explorer William Dunbar in 1804. Following his description Meriwether Lewis sent cuttings to President Jefferson and the largest existing tree resides on a farm adjacent to Jefferson‘s estate in Virginia. Lewis' letter indicates the trees were donated by a French gentleman Pierre Choteau, who resided in the Osage Nation where the Mississippi and Ouachita Rivers met. The name bois d'arc, or "bow-wood", was given by French settlers who noted the wood was utilized for Native war clubs and bow-making. This wood was prized among Native Americans for bows as it was unusually strong, flexible and durable… tribal members would travel hundreds of miles to find or purchase it from other tribes. In by 1890 a horse and a blanket were the standard price of a bow made of Bodark.

Many historians believe the rise of the advanced Spiroan Mississippi culture was due to the high value this wood had to Native Americans. The now extinct Spiroan tribe controlled the land in which these trees grew and archaeologist have discovered remarkable mounds that revealed the advancement of their society. Between 800 and 1400 the Spiro people created a powerful religious and political center that thrived along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Spiro (Oklahoma) is considered the western-most outpost of Mississippian culture and the objects discovered there among the most sophisticated pre-Columbian artifacts in all of North America.

Bodark makes remarkable fence posts for its lack of enemies… termites find it distasteful and it is not prone to fungus. Before the invention of barbed wire in the 1880's thousands of miles of ‘fence’ was constructed by planting young Osage Orange trees closely together in a line. Saplings were pruned to promote bushy growth to create a ‘horse high, bull strong and hog tight’ fence row made from Osage Orange and for this purpose it was ideal.

In 1934 Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated his Great Plains Shelter Belt Program to prevent soil erosion. By 1942 over 30,000 shelterbelts containing 220 million trees that stretched for 18,600 miles had been planted. Bodark must be carefully pruned as each shoot will grow up to six feet a season and for this reason it has become invasive.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fall Containers

Autumn is a time for a new genre of container planting and there are many plants that not only survive cold temperatures, they thrive on them. Flowering Kale is exceedingly popular today sporting an endless array of interesting ruffled leaf combinations from spires to tight rosettes. Kale is round, dense, and slow growing, with the marvelous attribute of having colors which deepen and intensify as the temperature dips. Kale is a form of cabbage and among the oldest of the cultivated edible greens. It has been a staple for centuries, adding a welcome green leafy vegetable to dinner tables and soup pots for the duration of winter. The flavor of the leaves becomes sweeter when exposed to frost. The most intense color is located at the center of the plant where the outer leaves tend to obstruct it so they need be planted at an angle for their total color to be fully appreciated.

Pansies are such a cheerful, adorable little flower who are always a welcome guest at the garden party. Their color options are positively stunning, their little faces delightful. Originally a common viola growing in fields and hedgerows in England they were cultivated by William Richardson, gardener to Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett in the early 1800’s. Despite his efforts, their first noted appearance was on the estate of James, Lord Gambier. His gardener, William Thompson, crossed various viola species with a viola tricolor to achieve a round flower of overlapping petals. By chance in the 1830’s he discovered a flower that no longer had narrow nectar guides of dark color on the petals but a broad dark blotch instead. From this pansy came the future ‘flower with a face', which was released to an adoring public in 1839. Her name was ‘Medora‘ and she still exists today.

Adding Mums to a container will make a statement as well. In choosing them, pick the mums that have tight little clusters of blooms… they will slowly open and allow for long-lasting show. To plant, tear off the bottom root growth and you may safely meld and squish all the plants together before watering to make sure all pockets between them have been filled with soil.

A gardening friend of mine, Susan Cohan, created the most lovely container I’ve seen in years. Instead of the usual fall flowers, she chose Hydrangeas to soften the look and she achieved her aim flawlessly. With the green and deep purple leaves of Kale, the petal-sweetness of the Hydrangeas, a host of pastel pansies and one white pumpkin embraced in the center of it all, she created the masterpiece shown in the photo

Photo credit: Susan Cohan

Monday, October 6, 2014

Magnificent Magnolias

The marvelous Magnolia is well suited for our Oklahoma climate and they are seeding now. As with most hard wood trees, their growth is slow and they do not mature and begin to flower until they are at least fifteen years old. Their life span is long with the oldest Magnolia on record 136 years old… Magnolias are as languid as a Southern Summer day and must not be rushed.

Asian species were introduced to the Americas in 1780 where they were carefully cultivated to produce superior flowers with the deepest lemony scent. In spite of their sturdy appearance, the large showy flowers are quite delicate and must be handled without touching the petals to avoid bruising and discoloration which will inevitably occur. For this reason they do not fare well in arrangements but are rather cut with a short stem and ’floated’ as a single specimen in a large shallow bowl or vase. Of interest is the fact Magnolias are pollinated by beetles.

The deep-green leathery leaves, traditionally used in Southern Christmas decorations, may be cut at their peak and preserved with glycerin. Glycerin is an organic emollient that may be absorbed through the stems of the leaves to preserve their freshness. Use one part glycerin to two parts very hot water. Put the glycerin solution in a short plastic wastebasket, cut the magnolia leaves with suitably long stems and pound the bottom of them to open the major artery before submerging the stems in the liquid. The Magnolia leaves will ‘drink’ the glycerin and slowly change from green to a gorgeous chestnut color. It takes about a month for the leaves to absorb the glycerin and when the leaves begin to feel flexible it is time to remove them. They must be hung upside and allowed to dry completely before use and now is a perfect time to do this project for Christmas d├ęcor.

Following flowering the Magnolia produces an interesting ‘pod’ in the form of a large, conical shaped cone with prickles here and there on its surface. As the weeks slowly pass the pod turns a slight shade of pink as the seeds form. Openings form and the shockingly-red shiny seeds appear and are slowly pushed from the pod. Songbirds birds eat these seeds on their migration journey as they are a good source of energy producing fat and protein. The seeds may be collected to plant however the shiny red overcoat must be roughed and removed to assure success. Happy Autumn!